The view from the 1 percent

By Tom Ehrich
Posted Dec 7, 2011

[Religion News Service] Now that the financial industry and major corporations have successfully lobbied Congress to make more people poor and to keep them that way, they are discovering the downside of unbridled greed: people are too broke to buy their products.

Heavy discounts were necessary to stimulate sales on Black Friday — a stimulus that lost steam as the big shopping weekend proceeded. Now further discounts will be required. That bodes ill for retailers, as well as for their suppliers.

It’s one thing to own Congress, but it’s something else when consumers refuse to buy. They’re staying home, maybe shopping online; they’re not investing, not saving, not selling their houses, not feeling confident about their own jobs.

In a freer free-market economy, competitors would emerge to resolve these problems. But corporate giants do everything possible to stifle competition. Consider Verizon’s bid to buy $3.6 billion of unused wireless spectrum to prevent anyone else from having it.

Thus we see the demise of modern capitalism, brought down not by socialists or fringe elements, but by the capitalists themselves.

Their self-defeating behavior — like that of any addict — has led them into the delusional belief that they can have it all. They can kill prosperity, stifle competition, rig capital creation into an insider game, undermine countervailing forces — and yet somehow the great market will continue to shower wealth on them.

The problem is, when the only ones who have money are the ultra-wealthy, those who actually make the economy work — small business, merchants, job-creating employers, innovators, government agencies — are starved. Despite the relentless right-wing drumbeat on tax policy and government spending, the villain in that starvation drama is the greedy 1 percent.

GOP strategists have concluded that the way to defame Occupy Wall Street is to brand them as “anti-capitalist.” In fact, they’re mostly job seekers who would be thrilled to see our free-market economy succeed and put them to work. Their protest isn’t against capitalism; their protest is proof that capitalism isn’t working, a victim of delusions in high places.

The problem, you see, isn’t the economic system as such. It’s the shortsighted, avaricious people who are running the system.

It began years ago when they decided to pad profits by squeezing labor costs, thus shrinking the middle class. Then they padded their own salaries by juicing stock prices at the expense of long-range thinking, thus discouraging innovation and capital investment. Next they crippled regulators, thus undermining confidence and inviting corruption; and finally demanded tax laws that benefit only them, thus diverting spendable money into their bank accounts.

What did they think would happen? If no one wins except a very few, the economy stalls. With all the incremental wealth in a few pockets, who is left to buy $200,000 houses or $20,000 Chevrolets or even $200 lawn mowers?

How did these leaders make it out of business school, law school and glossy colleges without any understanding of the fundamentals? The system has to work for everyone, or it won’t work at all. The enemy of democracy is an entrenched elite, and the enemy of a free-market economy is greed.

Where is God in this? Where God has always been: telling the rich to share, exposing delusions like bigger and better barns and Mammon-worship, standing with the poor and hungry, and demanding justice.

— Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. Visit his website. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.


Comments (12)

  1. Robert Ralston says:

    Sounds much like the modern Episcopal Church, more concerned with wealth and possessions than the membership at large.

  2. David Benedict says:

    This is the kind of speaking “Truth to Power” that we very much need to hear. Praise God for Tom’s discernment and courage to articulate this base issue in our society. Now we just need to find some way to do something about it before the ‘revolution’ starts.

  3. (The Rev.) Ronald L. Reed says:

    In 1982, I was at a business meeting in NYC near the Church Center. There were five of us in this working group, including a former assistant secretary of commerce under President Carter, former senior vice presidents of International Paper and GE, a well known speech writer and me. At the end of day, the topic of business schools came up regarding where to recommend to attend or from which to hire a new MBA. Two of the attendees immediately said “NONE!” The reason? They believed even then that the schools were producing morally incompetent bean counters whose only passion was the “bottom line” and who thought the only real goal was increasing profit by manipulating the production of short term profit, not goods and services. For thirty years, then, bean counters have successfully produced the money for themselves, the 1% of outrageously wealthy people. All moral capitalists cannot be surprised.

  4. Marylin Day says:

    Thanks Tom, I am not sure why anyone would think the Episcopal Church is all out for $, but it’s the best at charity as far as I am concerned!
    The Diocese of Indianapolis has a wonderful Bishop that practices what she preaches.

  5. Tom Downs says:

    This is the Gilded Age all over again. Robber barons, manipulated economy, unimaginable excesses in the demonstration of wealth… the abuse of the small invester, the use of government to promote big business and control the working class, hopeless poverty… Every thing was wildly out of balance, but balance was coming. It took decades of constant social unrest, the rise of communism, the Great Depression… Doesn’t anyone read history anymore?

  6. Joseph F Foster says:

    In response to Marylin Day’s uncertainty expressed above, I cannot speak for David Benedict but when the National Church and some dioceses care more about retaining church property than they do about Episcopalians who don’t either toe the liberal line or keep quiet, then I certainly understand why one might think the Church is out for money, property, and intimidation.

  7. Richard Van Orman says:

    Karl Marx has been ostracized for what Lenin, Mao, etc made him. We forget that he was also one of the most brilliant economist of all times. He contended that the only real enemy of Capitalism was Capitalism. Capitalism is built on a model of competition and free market……..but the ultimate goal of all Capitalist organizations is the elimination of competition and destruction of the free market. With the virtual elimination of the competition of socialism and communism along with the neutralizing of any checks and balances from government, we now see the sad truth of what Marx predicted, the destruction of Capitalism.

  8. Dana Campbell says:

    A very interesting and timely article. I am not sure I could sign on to the idea that the problem lies only in the greedy people using the system and not in the system itself, though. I just heard Professor Kathryn Tanner of Yale speak (author of the book Economy of Grace.) She wants us to identify the tendencies in our economic systems that encourage and reward behaviors such as greed. Tanner finds several economic principles embedded in the Christian message, among them: non-competitive enjoyment/access/use. That would put Christians at odds with many economic systems. As I understand it, Tanner is trying to use the language of economics to interpret Christian theology in order to enable Christians to make the connection between the two. If we succeed in doing so, we then have a foundation and a vocabulary with which to critique all economic systems…which is what we should be doing, right? Rather than trying to relegate Christianity to backing one horse or another in the race? The Occupy movement has been doing a great job of pointing to the fact that all is not right. The Emperor has no clothes. Now would be the perfect opportunity for Christians to articulate our own economic viewpoint(s). Yes, we can resort to the tried and true “human greed as the source of all evil” argument, but I think we might actually have more to say than that about the systems which drive and reward that greedy tendency.

  9. Kep Short says:

    Thank you, Mr. Ehrich. You are right on.

  10. It’s not often that you see so much economic ignorance, so many leftist cliches gathered together in one place. Did you sleep through Econ 101, Tom? Did you never take it at all? The “1%” can “kill prosperity,” can they? Seems like a really stupid thing for any businessman to do, deliberately cutting the monetary ground out from under his own customers like that.

    “Squeezing labor costs?” Really? Try “trying to remain competitive when labor unions have jacked salaries and benefits up out of all proportion.”

    “Juicing stock prices at the expense of long-range thinking, thus discouraging innovation and capital investment?” Don’t know where you’re getting that fairy tale from. China didn’t invent the iPad.

    “They crippled regulators, thus undermining confidence and inviting corruption?” That’s your take. But the correct take is that “they” did away with useless governmental regulations that added unnecessary costs and did nothing whatsoever for public confidence.

    “How did these leaders make it out of business school, law school and glossy colleges without any understanding of the fundamentals?” These leaders understand the fundamentals quite well. It’s Episcopalians like Tom Ehrich who think in bumper stickers who haven’t got a clue.

  11. David Saha says:

    This is an accurate assessment of the economic situation, I believe. Capitalism needs careful regulation in order to avoid destroying itself. This was recognized even in Old Testament times. Under Moses’ law, there were safeguards to prevent chronic poverty and a permanent underclass. The ban on usury and setting aside a portion of a farmers harvest for those who had experienced hard times are two examples. Indeed, there are provisions of Moses’ law that many christian people here today would oppose and disparagingly call “socialist” and “big government interference”. The purpose of The Law was to create a sustainable, godly society. I do not think rugged individualism was considered to be virtuous behavior.

  12. Doug Desper says:

    …”GOP strategists have concluded that the way to defame Occupy Wall Street is to brand them as “anti-capitalist.” Any insight or criticism by Mr. Ehrich about the Democratic National Party, the Unions who are funding protesters, or well-funded other agendas that will gain by civil unrest?

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